Can Malaysian policymakers get their country out of China’s expanding orbit?

Domino effects seen in various countries at the receiving end of Beijing's political bearhug and economic penetration, from port takeovers to media influence, should warrant alarm bells in Kuala Lumpur. Policymakers here are in full awareness of this dilemma, but it takes more than political will to reimagine a new direction in Malaysia’s thinking and policy orientation.

Collins Chong Yew Keat Dec 23, 2022
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Malaysia-China

Malaysia is placed as the 10th most influenced country by China by China Index, a database relaunched on December 8 by DoubleThink Labs. This study that measures Beijing’s expanding global sway mentioned Malaysia’s symbiotic links to and dependency on Beijing, in terms of foreign and domestic policy, technology, and the economy, making it particularly susceptible to Chinese influence.

On top of the recent Freedom House report that had more or less the same conclusions on Malaysia’s dependency on China, it gives the country a renewed sense of vulnerability but is likely to have little or no impact on Malaysian policymakers or their readiness to change course. 

In compiling the China Index, the research team focused on nine categories to track influence around the world that include higher education, domestic politics, economic ties, foreign policy, law enforcement, media, military cooperation, cultural links, and technology.

One surprising facet pointed out in this report is that there is no one clear pattern as to how China influences a country, and based on the data compiled the economic tool is not necessarily the determining one. For Malaysia, economic and trade dependence on Beijing remains the greatest impediment to policy independence and flexibility.

Growing media and mind control

Trade and investment were an early instrument of Beijing’s regional influence, but foreign policy, local media, and increasingly in defense and security, are seeing ripple effects of the Chinese dragon's outreach throughout Southeast Asia, especially in Malaysia.

Beijing’s tightening grip on Malaysia has been pervasive, although this is not much of concern to the general public. As outlined in the Freedom House report, Beijing’s media influence efforts in Malaysia are based on intensive propaganda and the promotion of positive narratives, especially in trying to win over the non-Chinese and Muslim communities in the country.

Efforts to discredit reports of mass detentions in Xinjiang and other atrocities by the Chinese government against Muslim Uyghurs are common. Narratives aimed at whitewashing the party-state’s policies in Xinjiang include portraying the region as a prime tourist destination, highlighting similarities in Islamic culture in China and Malaysia, and projecting how the Chinese government is allowing halal restaurants.

Chinese state presence on television and social media has been extensive, with self-censorship being rampant in the media fraternity for the fear of Chinese reprisal, especially in the threat of pulling out advertisements or through pressures on media managers.  Only a handful of  Malaysian media institutions that do not rely on Chinese patronage have the audacity in reporting the truth about China and in giving balanced and truthful assessments of China-related news in a climate of China pandering and pro-China narratives in Malaysia’s local media and public discourse.

Malaysian media vulnerabilities 

Chinese media strategies include partnering with local broadcasters to support publications of Malay language content, books portraying Chinese culture and history from the Chinese perspective, and support for Malay translations of Chinese content.

Subsidized journalist trips to Xinjiang have been regularly organised, with the expected buy-in from the public, especially in the Muslim community.

Disinformation campaigns have gained intensity, with Malaysia being at the epicentre of a couple of major Chinese-language and pro-Beijing disinformation campaigns that take their propaganda material directly from Chinese-language content farms. A 2020 Atlantic Council report found that some of these 'farms; were based in Malaysia and target Malaysian audiences through mainstream and social media 

Some media practitioners have pointed out that local Chinese media used to be “freer” before Media Chinese International (MCIL) started buying up these outlets in 2008.

All these are on top of the risks and threats from the digital sphere and cyberwarfare vulnerabilities, with worrying ignorance and apathy from Malaysian policymakers on the threat assessment to the country’s national security posed by Chinese-affiliated firms and tech institutions. Huawei controls 13.8 percent of Malaysia’s mobile phone market and has also long been Malaysia’s dominant supplier of internet modems, while Xiaomi, accounts for another 11 percent of the market.  Chinese suppliers collectively provide about half of all mobile phones in Malaysia.

Slow shifts in thinking

While Malaysia has been for years under the inevitable orbit and influence of Beijing, all is not lost yet. Shifts on the ground have been encouraging, albeit slow, but general perception has been slowly tilting against one-sided acceptance of Beijing and its tightening grip over the Malaysian mindspace. 

Polling by the ASEAN Studies Centre and ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute found that 58 percent of Malaysian respondents had little or no confidence that “China will ‘do the right thing’ to contribute to global peace, security, prosperity, and governance” in 2021. Almost 80 percent worry about China’s strategic influence, 63 percent are troubled by the country’s economic influence, and 63 percent have strong concerns about its growing footprint in the South China Sea.

When asked which of five statements best reflected their “view of China’s re-emergence as a major power with respect to Southeast Asia” in 2021, 45 percent of Malaysian respondents replied that China is a revisionist power working to turn Southeast Asia into part of its sphere of influence, up from 41 percent in 2020. When asked in 2021 what ASEAN should do if forced to choose between Beijing and Washington, 53 percent of Malaysian respondents chose Washington, compared to 47 percent who chose China.

All these show an encouraging sign of resilience and determination in withstanding the might of Chinese influence, although this risks further erosion and shifts should Malaysian policymakers continue to ignore ground realities.

Contradictory sentiments 

It masks Malaysia’s real potential and freezes its options to independently secure its long-term interests. The enticing lure of relatively easy capital requirements and resource inflow is mortgaging the country's future strategic interests to urgent current needs, politically or otherwise.

Growing sentiments, especially among the Malaysian Chinese populace, of equating criticisms of China with the West’s containment efforts, have further created a cycle of ignorance and risks.

Domino effects seen in various countries at the receiving end of Beijing's political bearhug and economic penetration, from port takeovers to media influence, should warrant alarm bells in Kuala Lumpur. Policymakers here are in full awareness of this dilemma, but it takes more than political will to reimagine a new direction in Malaysia’s thinking and policy orientation.

(The author is a Kuala Lumpur-based strategic and security analyst. Views are personal. He can be contacted at collins@um.edu.my)

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